The 61st Rationalization, #52 Tessio’s Excuse (“It’s Just Business”)

Salvatore_Tessio

I realized, in reading the rationalizations being given by defenders of the decision of the New Jersey aunt of recent controversy to sue her young nephew for accidentally injuring her wrist when the boy was eight all boil down to a familiar rationalization repeated often in a classic film and its sequel. Somehow that rationalization missed inclusion on the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations list. (There are 60 rationalizations now, with some labeled as sub-categories.) After today, that will no longer be the case. Presenting…

#52 Tessio’s Excuse, or “It’s Just Business”

Near the end of “The Godfather,” longtime Don Corleone loyalist Sal Tessio (played by the immortal Abe Vigoda) is caught attempting to ally with a rival family in an attempt to kill the new Don, Michael Corleone. As he is taken to the car for his final ride, Tessio turns to consiglieri Tom Hagen and says…

“Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.”

Ah. It wasn’t personal, you see, this attempted assassination. That makes it all right.

It is true that in leadership positions, duties to stakeholders may require ugly trade-offs and collateral harm to innocent people, but rationalization #52 makes such decisions too easy—they should be hard—by pretending that caring isn’t a core ethical value. If Winston Churchill, allowing Coventry to be firebombed in WWII in order to protect that secret that the Allies had broken the Enigma Code, had later explained that “it wasn’t personal,” the comment would have been viewed as callous, and rightly so. When the lives, fates and welfare of human beings are judged not sufficiently important to choose not to harm them, not a high enough priority to choose them over “business,” then that is a “personal’ decision, in part. The decision-maker didn’t care enough about the people to choose another course.

In Tessio’s case, he chose to betray an ally, friend and leader for his own benefit. Such conduct has to be personal. The assertion that only the abstract, not the personal, is a consideration is sociopathic. He knows that a person will be killed, that his loved ones will be hurt. waving aside these relevant factors in the ethical balancing process will lead inevitably to a pure “ends justify the means” philosophy: money means more than human beings, success means more than human beings, advancement means more than human beings. For the human beings sacrificed, the message is that the impersonal actor doesn’t give a damn.

The excuse is usually a valid one when professionals behave professionally. A lawyer is bound to seek her clients’ legal objectives, and is required not to have any regard for the opposing party’s needs and interests at all. It really isn’t personal. Nor is a general who must kill civilians to defend a city acting  out of personal animus. If a CEO or manager is ethical, he or she will fire a best friend from the staff in a budget squeeze if the friend is the least profitable staffer.  When the harm done is voluntary and unethical, however, and not dictated by a prior duty or legitimate orders, it  may breach both the ethical principles of reciprocity and the categorical imperative. When people are harmed, they really don’t care whether the motive was personal dislike or lack of caring, so why assume that the “it was just business” makes the damaging conduct feel better? Meanwhile, saying that you harmed another person to accomplish a personal or professional objective is an admission that one has used a human being to accomplish an end without the individual’s consent.

There is an ethical obligation for all of us to balance the harm our conduct does to other human beings with that  conduct’s other benefits. Tessio’s Excuse isn’t a justification. It’s a confession.

39 thoughts on “The 61st Rationalization, #52 Tessio’s Excuse (“It’s Just Business”)

  1. Cousin to the Saint’s Excuse (13)

    Distant Cousin of Ethical Vigilantism (17), I Had no Choice (25), and The Revolutionary’s Excuse (28)

    Also, in this instance, the Aunt is abusing the hell out of #36 Victim Blindness & #42 If They Don’t Care, Why Should Anyone Else

  2. I had assumed it was already in the list. I think a very good case can be made for “The Godfather” being the Great American Novel.

  3. A modest proposal: Lawyers stop using the term “legal ethics.” Legal ethics are simply practice rules for lawyers. Calling these rules (they’re called E.R.s for a reason) is misleading. Calling these rules “ethical” lends them a confusing veneer of nobility and importance they don’t deserve. Making this distinction has certainly cleared up the confusion in my mind.

    • Ugh. Just wrong, BIll. What defines a profession is a different priority of values. “Do not interfere” is the top value for starship captains, not police officers. “First do no harm” is an impossible value for lawyers, as I explained in a post. Since clients must trust lawyers to keep their confidences or they can’t get the assistant they need, keeping confidences is a core ethical value, far different from all put a few other professions. The ethics rules are not really rules. They define the legal culture’s values as they have evolved over century.

      • To me, the word “ethics” has an aspirational component which I find entirely lacking in legal ethics. They’re just practice guidelines anaolgous to rules of the road and would be better denominated as such.

        • You need to read the rules, and the introduction that places them in context. Here—http://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/model_rules_of_professional_conduct_table_of_contents.html

  4. Tessio turns to consiglieri Tom Hagen and says… “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” Ah. It wasn’t personal, you see, this attempted assassination. That makes it all right.

    I believe this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what that was about. First, recall how often people in the west – in this context, in the U.S.A. – ask “why do they hate us?” when they hear of violence directed towards them, unthinkingly supposing that nobody could hurt unless they hated. But that only applies to people who have internalised a certain ethos that humanises the other. That is rare in other cultures and even in some of our own subcultures, e.g. the “knockout game” isn’t motivated by hatred but by a sense of fun untempered by any sense of connection. (Even where there is such a sense of connection, as far back as Roman times the ancients had noticed that hatred often arose against those who had already been hurt, to excuse the hurt among those who otherwise would not hurt, rather than already being in place as a motive for hurting.) The important thing to realise is that demonising the other in order to be easy when attacking him is only necessary when he has previously been humanised, and that that humanising rather than the demonising is in fact the artificial thing that does not ordinarily arise within most cultures. I could cite examples from Ireland during the Troubles nearly a century ago, like the late Earl of Arran’s story of the young lady whose turn it was to drive, but I fear that I would only have to drive the moral of those home too, explaining the explanation too as it were.

    So, no, that message quoted – as used in that film – is not a justification or rationalisation at all, just a reminder from one member of a subculture to another of the nature of the kind of world in which they lived and moved and had their being. He – as shown in that film – just wanted not to be misunderstood. The takeaway for the audience should be not a justification but the amorality of it all, the coldness of the banality of evil: not malice but casual and brutal indifference.

    In Tessio’s case, he chose to betray an ally, friend and leader for his own benefit. Such conduct has to be personal.

    Well, no. That’s the point: that the personal no more exists genuinely in that sphere than it did as between Wormwood and Screwtape in C.S.Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, as brought at the end of that book. There is no “waving aside these relevant factors [that a person will be killed, that his loved ones will be hurt]”, rather those factors never were in play to be waved aside.

    Tessio’s Excuse isn’t a justification. It’s a confession.

    Well, yes. Did the book or the film ever represnt it as anything else, or is that just you reading into the text a person of similar fundamental values to yours, i.e. someone agreeing with your premises but with a poorer commitment to their outworkings? There is a difference in premises.

    In all this, I am analysing the fictitious Tessio, not the aunt who triggered the essay. I have not enough to hand to make her out.

    • You’ve actually done a really good job explaining exactly why this IS a rationalization, while invoking a few of your own. Though emotion is often found in hate, it is not a required component. If you “like” someone, but you “like” something enough to harm the person for it, the phrase “I like you”, is, quite simply a lie, self-delusion, or the liking of some aspect of the person, while hating the rest.

      In the end, it is elevating a non-ethical consideration, in Tessio’s case, it elevates his stature in the crime world while further securing his hold over his territory above his supposed “liking” of his friend. His phrase boils down to, “this conduct is excused, because I don’t really wish harm to this person, it’s just necessary to advance my cause”. And that’s a rationalization.

      Your concluding paragraphs also allude to further rationalizations.

      “Well, no. That’s the point: that the personal no more exists genuinely in that sphere than it did as between Wormwood and Screwtape in C.S.Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, as brought at the end of that book. There is no “waving aside these relevant factors [that a person will be killed, that his loved ones will be hurt]”, rather those factors never were in play to be waved aside.”

      Boils down to “I didn’t know the rules, so they don’t apply to me” or “I didn’t agree to the rules, so they don’t apply to me”. Which is further rationalization.

      • To be clear, C.S.Lewis’ discussion applies GREAT to spiritual matters as it relates to the Doctrine of Original Sin and Total Depravity: that is to say mankind CANNOT do *real* good, because we’ve completely lost the ability to do so, all our actions ultimately derive from some aspect of selfishness because *true* personal motivations deriving entirely from complete communion with God are BROKEN by the Fall.

        But, when applied to actually judging man’s behavior in man-made systems that *we must have*, it ultimately becomes a rationalization. It says “This bad I do isn’t my fault, it’s because I don’t even possess the requisite motivation & attitude to do it’s opposite good”. Unfortunately, though that be the case, that Spiritually we can’t, Physically, we must try, and the lack of trying is an ethical failure in itself.

      • His phrase boils down to, “this conduct is excused, because I don’t really wish harm to this person, it’s just necessary to advance my cause”. And that’s a rationalization.

        Sigh (again).

        Readers, although “this conduct is excused, because I don’t really wish harm to this person, it’s just necessary to advance my cause” is indeed a rationalisation, that’s NOT what he said. It’s what Texagg04 wilfully, recklessly or negligently substituted, inserting his own set of tools for grasping the universe – despite all the effort I went to to point out that something else was going on.

        The same applies to the following misrepresentation:-

        “Well, no. That’s the point: that the personal no more exists genuinely in that sphere than it did as between Wormwood and Screwtape in C.S.Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, as brought at the end of that book. There is no “waving aside these relevant factors [that a person will be killed, that his loved ones will be hurt]”, rather those factors never were in play to be waved aside.”

        Boils down to “I didn’t know the rules, so they don’t apply to me” or “I didn’t agree to the rules, so they don’t apply to me”. Which is further rationalization.

        No, it does not boil down to that, even though it would if it proceeded from a moral being acting immorally. That’s why I used the example of Wormwood and Screwtape, to show or remind readers of how these issues look from a perpective that does not build in norms often found in modern western civilisation. Texagg04 has just ferried in his own viewpoint and is charging me with not putting my money where his mouth is.

        • I didn’t expect you to fall back on Moral Relativism, had I anticipated such, then I would have argued against that from the get go. I made the presumption, that based on your apparent affinity to C.S. Lewis, you would also be familiar with the arguments made in earliest chapters of Mere Christianity, in which he demonstrates there must be an OBJECTIVE Right or an Objective Morality, or for our cases here, an Objective Ethic, by which ALL others can be judged.

          In short, moral relativism (a topic Jack has discussed in depth on this forum) doesn’t justify the conduct in the Godfather either.

          Take your analysis one step further back (where I’ve been the entire time), and your argument again becomes (for the third time) one that states “I didn’t agree-to/know the rules, so they don’t apply to me”. I know you think that sounds facile, but your dismission doesn’t help you out — it really is what your argument boils down to.

          Repeating “well other cultures think differently and have a different set of values than you” doesn’t undermine me one iota, either their arrangement of values cleaves more closely to the Objective or mine does…they aren’t equal. Though you’ll make the same relativistic attack on me, I will state that it is safe to assume that the Ethic that excuses the murder of another human to advance himself within his culture is probably further from the Objective than the Ethic that says such is wrong.

          Now, before you go back to repeating debunked arguments, since you seem keen on spiritual arguments, though they aren’t necessary for this discussion, consider Romans 1:19-20.

    • Fascinating. But also making the rationalization about The Godfather, which it isn’t. As in other rationalizations on the list, the source of the title is a recognizable hook to hang the description on, and shouldn’t be regarded as much more than that. The Godfather is about a specific subculture, and Tessio’s conduct makes ethical sense within that culture’s warped sensibilities. That’s a running technique in film and book: the characters repeat that line, and the audience is repelled by it. The point of rationalization articulation is to help people realize when they are think that way—in this case, like a mobster.

      • You’re making the same mistake as Texagg04, only more politely. Yes, the film (and book) is using a tension between two different perspectives, the typical viewer/reader and the character as portrayed, and yes from the viewer’s perspective it looks like a rationalisation when he projects some of himself on the character – but the character as such isn’t bringing that to the party. As someone once said to a worried mother of an autistic child in whom she kept reading certain things, “there’s no ‘there’ there”. So – within the character – it isn’t a rationalisation, what you see is what you get (just there, in the face of death).

        I once read one of Fred Saberhagen’s Dracula pastiche/hommages in which the protagonist is working as an assassin for Cesare Borgia, only to turn against him when asked to steal – something which strikes the (anti)hero as thoroughly dishonourable. It was only a few pages later that it occurred to me that Saberhagen had meant that to jar modern readers with cognitive dissonance, but it had simply not had that effect on me because of certain curiosities of my personal experience, family background, and broader education; it actually seemed very reasonable to me. So I don’t come to this with the usual prejudices but with different ones. If I exist – and I can assure you my position isn’t one that I worked myself into but which I work to manage in a different world – yet more remote positions become much more plausible.

        Oh, and since I don’t come from the usual norms, the book/film’s tensions don’t move me to the usual synthesis of viewer/reader and character.

    • Very interesting analysis. A similar take on this was from Hyman Roth:

      That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn’t even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town! Someone put a bullet through his eye. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard it, I wasn’t angry; I knew Moe, I knew he was head-strong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen; I didn’t ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business!

      So, Roth accepts Tessio’s excuse.

      -Jut

  5. “So, no, that message quoted – as used in that film – is not a justification or rationalisation at all, just a reminder from one member of a subculture to another of the nature of the kind of world in which they lived and moved and had their being.”

    I don’t see any reason why the line can’t be all three. It’s good fiction writing.

      • Sigh.

        Texagg04 doesn’t realise how deeply he is begging the question, building in his own assumptions about moral beings when considering amorality. An amoral person isn’t rationalising his amorality at all, even when he is making the same statements about his actions, and the actions are the same, as a moral being – and even though those same statements, from the moral being acting immorally, would indeed be rationalisations.

        The very conclusion that all that is rationalisation is building in the wrong premise, that a moral being acting immorally is under consideration.

          • Ah… pigeon chess strikes again. I would call you a liar if I thought you knew what you were talking about and so knew it was false.

            Readers, look at what I wrote and at what he wrote, and you will see that he is claiming I “reiterated” something that I not only never wrote even once but also specifically denied either writing or implying.

        • I think one of Puzo’s main points was that the Mafia guys actually have a very strict code of conduct. I think the goodfellas consider themselves extremely moral. Better than the Irish cops, certainly (to use a rationalization).

          • And of course it’s a rationalization. Does anyone think Tessio actually believed it as he was saying it? Look at Vigoda’s face. He’s a dead man walking and knows it.

            • Of course he (the character) believed it. Are you under the impression that his knowledge of his fate had anything to do with what he was going to say, to make him say something to excuse himself? If anything, the whole idea of a dying declaration lends it weight. He wasn’t saying it as a way to get off the hook, precisely because he knew he was on it good and hard.

              You may argue that he was sincerely rationalising. But why, when his world didn’t adhere to those values?

          • You should remember the distinction between legal ethics and ethics more broadly understood. The Mafia as portrayed had Mafia ethics, which included “it’s just business” as one of its outworkings. It’s incompatible with norms that humanise the other (the message of the Parable of the Good Samaritan).

    • The line could be any of the three, in the sense that the viewer constructs the film, and so the viewer could choose to construct a film in which all or most of the characters were fallen moral beings rather than amoral ones. But it could not be all three at the same time within the same viewer, and it cannot be a rationalising thing within a character understood as amoral.

  6. I don’t want to give too much away, but one of the interesting changes from the book to the movie script is that in the book Michael (and impliedly Vito) agrees with the argument presented in this post.

    • I’ve never read the book, and wasn’t aware of that. As is often the case (I wrote about this in the Atticus Finch post) the two versions of the story are in different universes, and are not fungible.

  7. I believe Tessio made a plea to Hagen, immediately before his “just business” line. Something like, “Tom, can you get me off the hook – for old times’ sake?” And Hagen promptly answered, “Can’t do it, Sal.” (I have watched the movie too many times – but I will watch it many more times.) I just thought it odd, to see a doomed man make a plea like that, as if there was any mercy to be gifted in a world of such ruthless, merciless business.

  8. Which reminds me why I think The Godfather is so essential to understanding American culture. America is not a Christian culture. Forget all the talk about morality and humaneness and C. S. Lewis. America’s pagan in the Classical Greek mythological sense. The top people in the culture act like Classical Greek gods and Titans and the media (er the Chorus) sing(s) their praises. How else to explain People Magazine or the Clintons or nearly every single person in Hollywood and the entertainment business? Success and wealth and power and good looks are all that matter. The business of America is business. And “it’s only business” brilliant, illuminating twist on that old saw.

  9. Now, this was an amazing comment thread. I tip my hat to PM Lawrence, TexAgg04, Other Bill,luckyesteeyoreman, LoSonnambulo, JutGory, and Jack. Any thread that interweaves The New Testament, CS Lews, Puzzo, Borgia, Dracula, the Classic Greeks, and the Mafia is wonderful. Very interesting comments, arguments, points-counterpoints, and rebuttals. I learned a lot from this discussion. That is why I like this blog.

    jvb

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